This is a huge, huge indictment of the criminal investigation and justice system that what looked like an open-and-shut case of favouritism by A Raja - which both former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Finance Minister Chidambaram probably suspected and tried to prevent ineffectually – is now being made to look like a case of major victimisation of the innocent. The damage done to the cause of justice is incalculable.
The Saini verdict also indirectly shows the Supreme Court in bad light, for the highest court had in 2012 cancelled all the 122 licences allocated by Raja
on the ground that this was done in a “totally arbitrary and unconstitutional” manner, with three telecom companies being asked to pay a fine of Rs 5 crore each for offloading their shares to foreign partners without starting any business.
An inkling of the CBI court’s final verdict could probably have been discerned in 2012 itself when Judge Saini let off Chidambaram from being added as an accused in the 2G scam case. The judge said in his order: “In the end, Mr P Chidambaram was party to only two decisions, that is, keeping the spectrum prices at 2001 level and dilution of equity by the two companies (Swan and Unitech). These two acts are not per se criminal. In the absence of any other incriminating act on his part, it cannot be said that he was prima facie party to the criminal conspiracy.”
Today’s (21 December 2017) verdict only takes the same logic forward. The CBI, which put the losses due to Raja’s “arbitrary” decisions on spectrum allotment at Rs 30,000 crore, has been told that its entire case is built on sand – a mere conjecture that losses to the exchequer effectively meant that there was some hanky-panky and corruption. The need to prove the financial trail by linking executive decisions to actual pecuniary advantage gained by them has not been proven. The logic given to exonerate Chidambaram has probably been used to give the same benefit of doubt to the main and subsidiary accused.
It is possible that the CBI will try to seek a review of the judgment by filing an appeal, but in the absence of direct evidence of someone making money from the decisions, it is difficult to see the possibility of a total reversal of the verdict. Even if it comes, it may take years to come.
While we will have to wait for the full judgment of Judge Saini to figure out the logic that decided his verdict, there is little doubt that a crime was committed, and most of the key players knew something wrong was about to happen in 2007-08. From then PM Manmohan Singh, who tried to dissuade Raja from allotting spectrum at 2001 prices, to Chidambaram and his Finance Secretary D Subbarao, who wanted spectrum sold through a market-discovered price, the top ministers knew what Raja was up to, and what he was about to do may be morally indefensible. More so when Raja additionally and arbitrarily preponed the cutoff date for licence allotment from 10 October 2007 to 1 October, thus eliminating 408 of the 575 applications for telecom licences, which included free spectrum to anyone who paid Rs 1,650 crore for the licence.
If Manmohan Singh was not worried about Raja’s decision, his Principal Secretary would not have written to the telecom ministry after the licences were allotted on 10 January 2008, that “the Prime Minister wants this informally shared with the department (that) he does not want a formal communication and wants PMO to be at arm’s length.”
However, this was not to be, and Raja’s principal argument throughout his trial, in which he represented himself, was that there can be no conspiracy when he had kept everyone informed of what he was doing. By bringing in Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram, he effectively made it impossible for the judicial system to convict him without implicating – at least morally – the highest political executives in the land.
The worst indictment of the system is that a decade after the alleged crime, all those who went after the corrupt have egg on their faces while the accused are celebrating. The scam happened in 2007-08, the Comptroller and Auditor General came out with his revenue loss figure of Rs 1.76 lakh crore in November 2010, Raja was arrested in February 2011, the charges were framed in October that year, the trial began in November 2011, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 licences in February 2012, and five-and-a-half years later, no one is guilty.
What a travesty of justice.
The author is editorial director, Swarajya
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.